At the beginning of May, I took a look at BP's social media strategy (or rather at the empty space where it should have been) as it struggled to contain and counteract the very negative PR fallout from the ongoing environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. I also solicited ideas from readers about potential social media strategies the stricken energy giant might employ towards this end. Now, over a month and a half later, it seems BP finally has a substantial social media strategy in place -- just as all its other damage-control efforts have gone off the rails. And while it's just more misery for BP's PR folks, this ironic situation provides an interesting case study of the relationship between social media and other media channels -- and how much social media success depends on these external factors.
First, I should recognize the social media achievement: After a period of curious passivity (for example ceding Twitter to a satirical poster, @BPGlobalPR, who flayed the company daily, and continues to do so) BP finally managed to create a dedicated microsite for the oil spill cleanup operations, hosted on the company's main Web site. This is important because it allows BP's PR team to present the kind of crafted messages that were missing from the more technical, nuts-and-bolts site maintained by the joint response team, including the Coast Guard and other concerned agencies. These messages allow the company to present a more human face -- expressions of regret, plans for relief to inhabitants of the Gulf region, and so on. There are also regular multimedia updates on the site via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr.
As the social media strategy finally takes flight, however, it's becoming increasingly clear that no amount of Tweeting or YouTubing can fix the basic problem: BP's bosses, who seem hellbent on embodying the stereotype of the venal, uncaring corporate overlords. Even their attempts to express determination or sympathy somehow come out wrong, from CEO Tony Hayward's plaintive wish to get his life back (yacht racing, etc.) to chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg's feudal concern for the serfs -- sorry, "small people."
Some commentators have gone for the hackneyed cultural explanation -- different emotional styles in Europe vs. America -- but that's obviously not it: Some of the harshest criticism for Hayward's testimony came from British newspapers, with The Daily Telegraph saying he "looked like a tired undertaker who was rather bored with having to look mournful." No, it seems that BP is just cursed with bosses who are not ready for primetime, or indeed any kind of public interaction. And with corporate leaders unable to execute even the most basic PR maneuvers -- look upset, apologize sincerely, repeat as needed -- there is almost no point in having a social media strategy, or any other kind of media strategy for that matter. Social media campaigns are laborious, time-intensive work. Like an ant colony, myriad individuals slowly build up a communal structure, with progress measured in small increments -- until the giant Italian loafers of the bosses come down and unwittingly demolish the whole thing.
Summing up, social media is just that -- media, a means for conveying content. It cannot substitute for the content itself. It can't, say, transform a gaffe-prone exec into a sparkling public speaker. Even the most brilliant social media strategist can't turn crap into gold. At this point, fixing BP's problems is up to its board of directors; once they get that sorted out, maybe they can use social media to begin repairing the company's image.